Giving Hope, Changing Lives

Birmingham’s Social Inclusion inquiry, Giving Hope, Changing Lives, delivered its interim report yesterday.  Ably chaired by the Bishop of Birmingham, the inquiry has been visiting neighbourhoods across Birmingham, talking to hundreds of local residents and exploring ideas for closing the gap between the richest and poorest in our city.

The findings spell out the stark nature of the challenge we face in parts of our city: high unemployment, educational underachievement, poor health and low incomes.  But it also sets out some of the tremendous work that is being done to turn lives and neighbourhoods around, much of it led by communities themselves.  There is a whole host of information about the inquiry at the Fair Brum website, which is well worth a visit.

As the Council’s Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion, I’ve been taking a very close interest in the inquiry and its findings.  The Bishop and I could be heard discussing the inquiry on Ed Doolan’s Radio WM show yesterday lunchtime (click here and go to 1hr, 8mins into the recording if you want to hear how that went) and I also spoke at the summit meeting which considered the report .  Here’s what I said:

All of us in this room have been on quite a journey over the past few months.  It has taken us across the city and shown us its many strengths, its many challenges and most importantly, its tremendous possibilities – even in the face of economic adversity.

That journey doesn’t end today.  We haven’t even made it much past first base yet.  But today’s summit is an opportune moment to stop, draw breath, reflect on where we have been so far and decide the route we want to take next.

I’ve been on a bit of a journey too.  When this process started, I was an opposition politician, with all the frustrations – but some of the freedoms that status brings.  Now, I’m in a rather more responsible position – charged with helping to drive forward the agendas we have all been discussing this morning.

Those aims – of making our city a fairer, more equal place; of challenging the disadvantages that have scarred the map of Birmingham for too long; of giving each and every citizen the chance to be the very best that they can be – these sit at the very heart of the new administration’s vision for the city.

Changing the map of poverty and disadvantage in this city is a big ask at the best of times, let alone in the tough climate in which we now find ourselves.  But it remains a vital task – one which we must remain focused on in spite of the spending cuts and other enormous economic pressures we face.

It is not just a simple case of doing this because it is the right and moral thing to do either – important and compelling though the moral arguments are.  The fact is that without a strong cohesive society, our city will struggle to make the strides it needs to succeed in the future.

Inequality prevents our citizens, our businesses and our communities from achieving their full potential.  To tolerate that inequality, to accept – even tacitly – that parts of our city will forever be mired in a cycle of worklessness, low income, educational underachievement and poor life expectancy – is tantamount to an act of economic and social sabotage.

A more equal and cohesive community is not only a more pleasant place to live.  It is by its very nature a more vibrant and economically successful one too.

That is why closing the gap is our number one priority and every activity we undertake needs to be judged by its contribution to achieving that aim.

As a City Council, we can’t deliver these things on our own.  We will only deliver social cohesion and tackle those deeply rooted inequalities, by working in partnership – with the public sector, with business, with voluntary organisations, faith networks and most importantly, with communities themselves.

I think it is clear from the evidence that we have been gathering as part of this Social Inclusion process, that you don’t deliver that more equal society by simply “doing it to” people.  We can’t just land, like some sort of alien spaceship, in the middle of a community and dispense social change.

We have to give communities proper ownership of the process.  Local people have to be given the opportunity to take the lead, to develop institutions that they own and control.  This is the kind of legacy that all too often, previous attempts to regenerate communities have failed to deliver. 

Those initiatives often failed to understand that we have to help communities take control of their own destinies.  Not by abandoning them and saying “best of luck, get on with it”, but by working with them to develop the skills, the aptitudes and resilience they need in order to thrive independently.

That is why the City Council is embarking upon a radical programme of devolution and localisation – remodelling services so they are closer to local people and pushing out powers and budgets from the centre so they can be deployed and reshaped in a way that meets local needs, not central diktat.

I’m also keen that we take a different approach to how we approach neighbourhood problems.  All too often, we start with the question: “what’s wrong with this community”?  Wouldn’t a better place to start be “what’s right with this community”? 

We’re often very bad at this as a society.  We can endlessly rehearse the mantra of local problems that affect a neighbourhood, but what about the positives?  What about its strong sense of community?  What about the active residents who give up time, energy and effort to run the local community association or youth group?

My point is that we need to start with our strengths. We have a wealth of experience and expertise in neighbourhoods across the city.  We have a lot of people doing tremendous things in their communities each day. Let’s make use of these assets and deploy them to address the problems.  

And while we’re about it, let’s have a proper and frank discussion about what it means to be a citizen of Birmingham here in 2012.  What are our shared values?  What are the rights that we should expect as a citizen – and just as importantly, what are the responsibilities that we have as a citizen too?

We need to rediscover the language of reciprocity – that we all contribute something to society in order to receive something from it.  It is a principle that is well understood in communities across the city.  Let’s make it the bedrock of our new approach to tackling inequality – and let’s start by having a citywide debate about those values, along the lines that this inquiry has already instigated.

We face unprecedented challenges.  An economy in recession.  Massive cuts to public sector budgets.  A series of welfare reforms that will further imperil some of the most vulnerable members of our community. None of these things make our mission any easier.

That is why a strong partnership – across sectors, agencies and communities – is so important.  My role as Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion isn’t to have all the answers. It is to ensure that we build that partnership and that we drive it with a single-minded focus on the closing of the inequality gap.

In the coming months, I will be bringing forward a social cohesion strategy to put these aims into action.  That strategy won’t succeed if it is merely the City Council’s strategy.  It has to be the City of Birmingham’s strategy – a common aim and endeavour to which we are all signed up.

The recommendations from this Social Inclusion process and the tremendous work that has been done over the past months will play an important part in underpinning and shaping that strategy.

I would like to especially thank Bishop David for leading this process.  We are lucky to have such a passionate, enthusiastic and independent advocate for social justice at the helm and I look forward to continuing to work with you in the weeks and months ahead.

A whole host of other people have given up their own time, offered their expertise and contributed their energy and passion to this Social Inclusion process.  You’ve pooled your collective resources to do this and create a genuinely “Made in Birmingham” product.

So we have proved that we can do that bit.  Here’s my next challenge to you.  Let’s take the collective determination and partnership approach we’ve used to analyse the problem – and deploy it just as effectively in delivering the solutions.

We have a vital job to do.  Let’s redouble our efforts and ensure that the legacy we leave is to have changed that ugly map of inequality once and for all.


Posted on July 21, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. So refreshing to hear a politician say this:

    ‘My point is that we need to start with our strengths. We have a wealth of experience and expertise in neighbourhoods across the city. We have a lot of people doing tremendous things in their communities each day. Let’s make use of these assets and deploy them to address the problems.’

    Let’s work out ways we can make this happen

  1. Pingback: Building a Fairer Brum « John Cotton

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